WASHINGTON, Nov. 10 — Vice President Dick Cheney has in recent speeches mentioned the major bombings in Iraq this past summer in the same breath as the deadly strikes in Bali, Casablanca and Riyadh, which authorities say were carried out by Al Qaeda or groups affiliated with it.
The clear implication is that militants linked to Al Qaeda were responsible for the Iraq bombings, too. The attacks in Baghdad last month would appear to lend credence to that claim except for this: senior military, intelligence and law enforcement officials say there is no conclusive evidence pointing to a particular group — Al Qaeda or not — as the mastermind behind any of the major attacks in Iraq. "At this point it isn't clear who's responsible for those bombings," a senior American official said.
Indicating who is behind the bombings — militants linked to Al Qaeda or homegrown loyalists to Saddam Hussein — is important politically for Mr. Cheney and his boss, President Bush, terrorism experts say.
Mr. Cheney has repeatedly sought to cast the Iraq war and its aftermath as part of the broader campaign against terrorism. Administration officials say that linking the bombings in Iraq to Al Qaeda and the broader war on terrorism puts the attacks in a better political light than if they are viewed as guerrilla strikes by Baathist die-hards.
But critics have accused Mr. Cheney of far exceeding what other administration figures have asserted about Qaeda links to Iraq. Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney have defined the American antiterror efforts very broadly.
Just last Friday, Mr. Cheney said at fund-raisers in Houston and Austin, Tex., that Mr. Hussein had "an established relationship with Al Qaeda," an assertion some intelligence say is overstated. "Freedom still has enemies in Iraq," Mr. Cheney added. "These terrorists are targeting the very success and the freedom that we're providing to the Iraqi people."
Some critics say the American presence in Iraq has become a magnet for terrorists, but other officials say the precise role of foreign militants in Iraq is murky.
Ansar al-Islam, a small group accused of having links to Al Qaeda, has about 150 fighters now inside Iraq, intelligence officials say. But Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the American ground commander in Iraq, said recently, "We do not have any confirmed Al Qaeda operatives actually in custody at this point."
Administration critics say that by combining the array of hostile actors in Iraq, Mr. Cheney is blurring the focus of what should be a fight against the greatest threat to the United States: Al Qaeda.
"To paint all these groups with such broad brush strokes does a great disservice," said Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat on the Armed Services Committee and a former officer in the 82nd Airborne Division. "We'll lose our focal point on what's the greatest threat."
Over the past several months, Mr. Cheney has aggressively sought to tie foreign terrorists, specifically Al Qaeda, to Iraq. In September, a few days after Mr. Cheney said the government did not know whether Mr. Hussein had some connection to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Mr. Bush all but contradicted him.
Asked by reporters about Mr. Cheney's statement, the president replied, "No, we've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with September the 11th."
Mr. Cheney began mentioning the big Iraq bombings with major Qaeda-related attacks in some of his speeches about two months ago.
His address to the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy in Houston on Oct. 17 was typical: "Since Sept. 11th, the terrorists have continued their attacks in Riyadh, Casablanca, Mombasa, Bali, Jakarta, Najaf and Baghdad. Against that kind of determined, organized, ruthless enemy, America requires a new strategy — not merely to prosecute a series of crimes, but to conduct a global campaign against the terror network."
Catherine J. Martin, a spokeswoman for Mr. Cheney, conceded it was unclear which group was culpable for the Iraq bombings, but said they were still "acts of terrorism."
But experts said Mr. Cheney is seeking to strengthen perceived ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq.
Judith S. Yaphe, a former C.I.A. analyst who is a senior research fellow at the National Defense University, said, "He wants to create a link in people's minds that if they are there now, they were there before the war."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company